Remembering John Metson
John Metson was born on the 1st of August 1918 to George and Margaret Metson of the inner Melbourne suburb of Richmond.
After finishing his schooling, Metson found work as a salesman, and paraded part-time with the 5th Battalion of the Victorian Scottish Regiment.
Following the outbreak of the Second World War the battalion was called up for a three-month period of compulsory training. While some members would be sent to Western Australia and Darwin to carry out garrison duties, the 21-year-old Metson instead volunteered for overseas service, enlisting in the Second Australian Imperial force in May 1940.
He was posted to the newly raised 2/14th Battalion and, after a period of training at Puckapunyal, left Sydney in October, bound for the Middle East.
After further training in Palestine, in early April 1941 the 2/14th Battalion moved to Egypt to help bolster defences along the Libyan frontier. In late May, it returned to Palestine to prepare for the invasion of Syria and Lebanon.
The 2/14th launched operations in Lebanon, attacking Vichy French frontier outposts in the early hours of the 8th of June. After taking part in the drive along the coast and fighting major engagements along the Zahrani River, and inland at Jezzine and Damour, it remained as part of the garrison until early January 1942.
Sailing from Egypt at the end of the January, the 2/14th had a brief period of respite back at home. Metson took advantage of this break, marrying his sweetheart Dorothy on the 17th of April.
A few months later he was back in action, as his battalion was sent to New Guinea to stem the Japanese overland advance on Port Moresby. Metson had been promoted to acting corporal, and then confirmed in that rank before arriving in Port Moresby in mid-August. Within a few days, he and the other men of the 2/14th were advancing along the Kokoda Trail to confront the rapidly advancing Japanese.
Their first clash with the new enemy took place on the 26th of August. After four days of fighting, the Japanese broke through the Australian defence line near the village of Isurava.
Corporal Metson’s ankle had been smashed by a bullet during the fighting, and he was part of a group who had been cut off from withdrawal. Looking for a way to rejoin the battalion, they fell in with a larger party under the command of Captain Buckler, which had been similarly cut off.
The group included a number of wounded, some of whom, like Metson, were unable to walk. Stretchers to carry the wounded were constructed from bush poles and vines, each requiring eight men, already loaded down with their own equipment and weapons, to carry. Knowing that the group was too weak to carry more stretchers, Metson refused to be carried. Instead, he padded his hands and knees and crawled behind the stretcher bearers.
As the Japanese now held the main track, the group was forced to turn off the track, wandering through the jungle for three weeks searching for an alternative route. Metson spent this entire period crawling in silent agony. His cheerful fortitude, however, profoundly inspired the other men in the party.
But they were desperately short of food and getting weaker each day, and it soon became apparent that carrying the stretchers was slowing down the party’s movements to the point that, if they continued as they were, nobody would survive. Captain Buckler decided that the seriously wounded cases would be left in the care of the villagers of Sangai, so that the able-bodied could find help. A stretcher-bearer, Corporal Tom Fletcher, volunteered to stay at Sangai to care for Metson and the other wounded.
Immediately on his arrival at Port Moresby Captain Buckler arranged for an American bomber to drop medical supplies and food to the men at Sangai. Although exhausted, he insisted on accompanying the crew on the flight.
As the aircraft flew low over Sangai, Buckler expected to see a signal from the men who had been left there, but nothing moved on the ground below. The village appeared to be deserted. A month later, when the tide of battle had turned, a ground patrol went to the village and found the bodies of John Metson, Tom Fletcher, and the other sick and wounded who had been discovered by the Japanese and executed.
Captain Buckler never forgot Metson’s “courage, tenacity and unselfishness” and saw to it that he was posthumously awarded a British Empire Medal.
John Metson was buried at Sengai on the 5th of November 1942, but after the war his remains were reinterred at Port Moresby (Bomana) War Cemetery.
As his mate, Les Cook and Kokoda veteran of the 2/14th wrote of him 20 years ago:
When you stand in silent remembrance on Anzac Day, or significant anniversaries such as today, or when you stand before a cenotaph or at the gates of a war cemetery and read the words, "Their name liveth for evermore", think of John Metson; of his fortitude, his determination not to be a burden to others, and his cheerful acceptance of the awful situation into which he had been thrust.
It is now 75 years since the Kokoda campaign ended. The ranks of those of us who took part in it are thinning, and we will soon all be gone. During our lifetime we have told the stories and we have written of the deeds of the giants among men who walked ahead of us and showed the way in the dark days of war; we have tried to keep faith with them and with our people.
You have a duty to future generations to preserve the legend of John Metson, and people like him. People who, in times of extreme adversity did not lose heart, but pressed on gallantly and cheerfully towards the goal against all odds, placing the welfare of others above their own, and giving us a national tradition of which all should feel proud. If this nation continues to uphold their nobleness of spirit, and if each individual endeavours to live up to their example, our people shall be fit.